“Woman No. 3,” archival inkjet print (32″ x 40″). Whitney Hubbs. Courtesy of the artist.
“Woman No. 3,” archival inkjet print (32″ x 40″). Whitney Hubbs. Courtesy of the artist.
The Passenger series is a resistance to adhere to a single voice. This range of styles might normally rest uneasily, as a poorly planned seven-course meal. In this case, a window and a wing will frame pretty much anything as cohesive in repetition. Such dry, narrative structures allow painting to open toward being an expedition in which there is no way to uncover bad data.
Peter Barrickman lives and works in Milwaukee. His work has been shown nationally and internationally at galleries and museums including The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, The Tate Modern, and Cite des Arts International in Paris. His work has been written about in ArtForum, Art Papers, Art in America online, The New Republic, and The New York Times online. He is represented by Green Gallery.
I’ve seen you watching them undress the mannequins
in the department store windows, late at night
waiting by the bus stop, long after
the last conductor has climbed into bed.
I’ve seen you with the little blond girls
in the park, luring them
onto your lap, pretending to be blind
brushing their soft skin and hair
with your wrinkled sticky fingers
whispering the same words you mouth
through the glass at the pretty dolls smiling
at your open trench coat, the last conductor’s wife
climaxing alone in the shower, in the back
of your head, just before you
pull up your shorts and start the long trip
Holly Day has taught writing classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, since 2000. Her poetry has recently appeared in Big Muddy, The Cape Rock, New Ohio Review, and Gargoyle, and her published books include Walking Twin Cities, Music Theory for Dummies, and Ugly Girl. She has been a featured presenter at Write On, Door County (WI), Northwoods Writer’s Festival (CA), and the Spirit Lake Poetry Series (MN). Her newest poetry collections, A Perfect Day for Semaphore (Finishing Line Press) and The Yellow Dot of a Daisy (Alien Buddha Press), will be out late 2018.
I don’t recall anyone asking for new technologies that would strip them naked in front of total strangers, but that’s the situation we’ve come to: Literally, when we pass through a portal to catch a flight; figuratively, when we cozy up to social media; and a bit of both when we become ensnared in the health care system. And yet, like the proverbial frog-in-the-soup, being immersed naked in front of everybody doesn’t cause enough pain to complain. That is, unless, in all our studied innocence, we get hacked.
We’ve become so inured to hearing reports of security breaches on Internet servers, home computers, and smartphones that they no longer surprise or even distress. We’ve seen malware, ransomware, botnets, Trojan horses, cyber-espionage, denial-of-service attacks, email intrusions, and other kinds of hacks float through the æther, but if they’re not up close and personal we move on to more important matters like online shopping and posting to our wall.
For a host of puzzling reasons, whenever science and technology showers humanity with fruits from the tree of knowledge, legions of evil geniuses collect them to ferment into bad wine they then pour into bottles affixed with respectable labels. It has been so since grapes were first cultivated, and there’s no hope for putting technology bootleggers in stir as long as companies we pay to take us online are part of the racket. In the event that worrying about getting hacked hasn’t been keeping you up at night, here are three tales of innovative intrusiveness that lie just around the corner, storified so as not to scold. Names have been changed to protect the unborn, the uncredited, and the unclothed.
You and your wife want to start a family, but genetic testing has revealed a discomforting risk. It’s called mitochondrial myopathy, and it can lead to any number of ghastly symptoms and a shortened life. Like an increasing number of young couples, you and your wife decide to make a recombinant baby. It involves a procedure to strategically insert your wife’s genes into a donor egg from someone you don’t know who can’t pass on the disease before you fertilize it in vitro. After a nerve-wracking but normal pregnancy, the blessed day arrives. Your healthy infant is tested and is declared free of the dreaded defect. However, her skin is swarthier than either yours or your wife’s, and she has really curly hair, which doesn’t run in your families either.
Your baby was hacked. Months later—far too late—you learn that databases at the company to which your wife and potential gene donors trusted genetic code had been compromised. Internet interlopers swapped generic and identifying data of prospective donors with those of clients who paid them to jump into the company’s gene pool. So, instead of receiving a dose of clinically matched genes from person X, your zygote came from a batch donated by unknown person Z. The hackers who pulled that off profited handsomely, leaving you to raise a child carrying the chromosomes of some egoist who doesn’t look like you.
Of course you love your new daughter very much. But who is she?
Whether the eBook got the Zeitgeist just right or your sexy social media marketing campaign was so masterful, your self-published novel “The Fat Lady Sings” became an unexpected hit. It sold 11,000 copies in two months and within six months you pick up buzz that it might be headed to the silver screen. Various attempts to track down the source of this puzzling rumor go nowhere. Certainly no producer has approached you asking to buy rights to your work.
The rumor proves to be true. You find some pre-publicity that reveals that there indeed is a production and its screenplay is the work of a screenwriter whose name turns out to be a pseudonym. Eventually you learn that the movie has been released under the title “Over,” and of course you go to see it. Action unfolds much like your book’s plot. Its dialog resonates. Its characters are a bit scrambled and have new names, but their traits and motivations are quite recognizable. You are outraged and decide to sue the producer.
The legal discovery process unearths the film’s screenplay. To prove plagiarism took place, you hire a literary forensics expert to map it to your text using advanced machine learning algorithms. Her findings document some thematic and syntactic correlations between your novel and the screenplay, but the court finds that sentences you claimed were derived from yours aren’t similar enough and neither are the characters. Your case evaporates. You suffer a loss of dignity as well as royalties and have to pay court costs.
It turns out that you are just one of hundreds of authors to be victimized by a low-profile piece of software. Someone fed your novel through the Mutabilis application to rephrase your prose as a retelling that does not violate copyright law. You research the software. You learn that Mutabilis uses morphological algorithms developed by the well-respected Computational Linguistics Group at Cambridge University. Perhaps they erred by putting their programme under Crown Copyright for all to see, as somebody trampled on their rights to erect Mutabilis around their code. Its maker sells it as a PC and Mac app on the gray market for $369.98 a pop. Crestfallen, realizing it’s only a matter of time until books are written by robots, you delete the sequel you were writing and look for ad agency jobs.
Lisa, your girlfriend and a happening fashion model, calls you late one night. She’s weirded out, hysterical, and says she needs you to come over right away. When you get to her place, you find her hunched down in the bathtub clutching a fly swatter. Between sobs, Lisa tells you that a huge bee got into her apartment and is following her around. She describes how it flew into her bedroom just after she got out of the shower. When she noticed it hovering, she screamed and flailed around at it. The insect menacingly circled her and then flew off, allowing her to retreat into the bathroom and call you.
Flyswatter in hand, you prowl through her place, but the thing is nowhere to be seen. You sit on her couch and hold her close until she finally sleeps. You’re fatigued, it’s 1 AM, and so you throw a blanket over her and tiptoe away. When you open her front door to leave, something small noisily lifts off your shoulder, darts through the door, and buzzes into the night. You need a hug too.
A week later, someone informs you that nude photos of Lisa have shown up in a tabloid gossip magazine. You dash to the supermarket to grab a copy, and there she is, completely and candidly unclothed. The article notes that more pictures and videos are available on their subscribers-only Web site. Of course you sign up, paying 49.95 for the privilege.
The pictures clearly show Lisa in her bedroom, and are very revealing. You think back to the bee incident and immediately realize that her premises must have been hacked by a miniature drone with a videocam configured to look like an insect. Lisa retains a lawyer to go after the tabloid, which turns out to have offices in the Cayman Islands and refuses to divulge the source of the images, citing the First Amendment. They also say that if sued, they will reveal evidence that depicts the actual paparazzi leaving Lisa’s apartment. That, of course, would be you.
So Lisa fires her lawyer and hires an agent to handle her sudden unwanted publicity. You kiss off the $49.95 and buy Lisa a can of cooking spray, just in case it happens again.
Geoff Dutton’s meteoric career as a geospatial software developer crashed and burned in a series of foreseeable layoffs. In response, he did what many ex-academics and techies do: become a professional mansplainer, spending the prime of his life as an IT columnist and a technical writer telling computer users what they should and shouldn’t do. Along the way, he found time to author a novel, hundreds of stories, articles, memoirs, broadsides, and the odd poem, most recently at progressivepilgrim.review. Geoff lives near Boston and likes to forage for wild mushrooms and cook for his family (all are perfectly well, thank you).
When I was a kid of four or five I’d tear up at the word mayonnaise. I don’t anymore. It didn’t make me sad. No, it was the creamy, squishy sound of the word that got to me. That was when we lived in Boston. When I was eight or nine and living in Grand Junction, Colorado, I used to climb a small tree in the front yard of our rented house. In April, wild asparagus used to spring up along the roads. It was edible and we ate it. The taste reminded me of communion wafers. I still eat asparagus, but I haven’t climbed a tree in sixty-some years. We moved to Wisconsin when I was thirteen, about the same time I started waking up with full bladder and an erection. It wasn’t pleasant stumbling to the bathroom in that condition, and yet it’s an inconvenience I miss—the erection part, that is.
These days I’m retired. On weekday mornings, I walk past a funeral home with a dented downspout to Starbucks, where I drink a medium cappuccino and read the obituaries in the local paper, searching for stylistic infelicities, of which there are many. The other day a truck loaded with prosthetic devices (according to the police report) sideswiped me in a crossing walk, sending me to the hospital.
That gave me a chance to test out an intriguing rumor—that people will say and do anything around a man they think is asleep or knocked unconscious or in a coma, especially if the man is elderly and looks half-dead, as I did. Luckily, they put me in a private room, where I could run my little experiment without worrying about a roommate’s giving me away. I figured all I had to do was close my eyes, go limp, and produce a small hissing sound that would pass for breathing and convince visitors I wasn’t dead. For a few hours following my admission to the hospital, I practiced peeking through slitted eyelids. In between submitting to various tests, I worked on positioning my head on the pillow to ensure unobstructed sight-lines. (Who knows what the nurses thought I was up to.)
Finally, the tests ceased. It grew quiet, except for passing footsteps. It was a white room with one window. I was ready. After a while, I sensed others in the room, heard whispering. It was my daughter and her husband; they were talking about insurance. The word “coverage” kept coming up. I didn’t bother to look at them, or the next visitor, one of my ex-wives, who told a funny story about how I used to snore through televised football games, complete with sound effects. Even I laughed (quietly). I must have fallen asleep around then, because the next thing I knew someone—a lovely, faintly hoarse voice, female—was whispering in my ear that it was time to get up.
I cracked open my eyes. It was the actress Julie Harris, freckled and boyish as she had been in 1952. And since she was dead, I knew I was dreaming.
“You can’t fool me,” she said. “It’s time to get up and run.”
“You were so great in East of Eden,” I said. “But I was always a sucker for the skinny, smart, tremulous type.”
That’s when she brought out the feather—a great peacock rainbowed feather—and wiggled it under my nose. “Time to get up and run,” she said.
The hallways were surprisingly narrow. I worried about my gown opening in back as I ran. Giggling nurses stationed in the doorways swatted me with peacock feathers. Julie Harris was right behind me. At the end of the hall was an enormous jar, white with a blue and yellow label. I ran right up to it and stopped. I couldn’t go any further, the jar blocked all the exits.
“That jar’s too big to be real,” I said.
“Hospital-sized,” she said. “The good thing is you’ll never run out of—” She stopped and looked at me. “Help me, Jack,” she said.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Yes, you can. For me. The good thing is you’ll never run out of—”
“Mayonnaise,” I said, and for the last time in my life I teared up.
John Goulet was a short story writer and novelist (Oh’s Profit, William Morrow; Yvette in America, U of Colorado Press) whose work has been reviewed in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The London Times Literary Supplement. A review in Sewanee Review placed Yvette in America in the ranks of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. He has stories in Kansas Quarterly, Brooklyn Review, Sonora Review, Folio, Crescent Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Denver Quarterly, Cream City Review, The Colorado Review, and other journals. “Reviving Pater” appeared in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward. His work has also appeared in recent issues of The Literary Review and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. John passed away on February 7, 2018.
I am a 27-year-old transwoman biology professor who, since I can’t get pregnant, decided to clone a child. And with the correct in-utero hormone therapy, despite my XY karyotype, the child should be born externally female. So I stole several fertile human eggs from my medical lab, removed the original nuclei, inserted DNA from my cells (somatic nuclear transfer), and allowed the eggs to do their thing.
Life is breathtaking. Fights like hell to survive and follow the instructions from those organic code strands. On day seven, I implanted three developing blastocysts into the uterus of a healthy young sow, hoping to delay rejection until at least one fetus became viable. Six-weeks into the pregnancy I injected the sow with estrogens and a T-blocker so that the babies would differentiate as female. At three months, I washed their brains with a round of estrogen/progesterone to promote a feminine psychology. This was probably overkill. I was cloning myself, but I wanted the new “me” to swing girly.
I’m already a little jealous of the babies. With my childhood, brutal parental and societal efforts to make a man out of me, and my own desire to fit in, I didn’t have much chance to be Miss Fem-Fem. But enough about me.
The birthing process is hardly worth describing. Just think of a pig cesarean delivering a six-month human female and you get the picture. Two fetuses died in utero and the sow during labor. I had to deliver early because tissue rejection became life-threatening, already killing two fetuses, despite the combative drugs. But one child survived and somehow pulled through.
Outwardly, my new daughter presented as a perfect though tiny female, and I rigged an incubator at home where she spent her first two months. Because I wasn’t thinking ahead, I fed her formula for the first three weeks but immediately began injecting myself with prolactin and oxytocin to induce lactation from my own well-formed breasts. The child improved rapidly on mother’s milk.
Willia Jane Wintersmith grew strong, and I loved her. Oh, how I loved her.
Most of my colleagues understood that I couldn’t bear children, so I bought adoption papers and a birth certificate, listing my old name as the father and my new name as the mother. The forged documents looked like factory originals, and since no busybodies fretted over my parental rights, especially the pig, I was able to raise Willia as the girl I always wanted to be. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s what caused most of the trouble.
Around age five, my precious and precocious youngster clarified that she had no intention of being Miss Dainty Princess. She had a mind of her own, hated dresses, and took scissors to any lacy frills that I insisted would be “cute.” Soon, I quit wasting money in the girls’ department and left her to jeans, Red Sox sweatshirts, and Nike running shoes.
I offered Willia everything I fancied as a child, and I couldn’t understand how another me refused to wear the beautiful white spring dress and hat I bought for her. I kept telling myself she’d grow out of this tomboy stage, but to be safe I increased her estrogen levels (“vitamin pills”) in an attempt to reshape her in my image.
I realized now that this was as ineffectual and cruel as my own parents trying to turn me into a man. Nine years later, it became a disaster.
The Warwick High School principal, Dr. Madeline Davids, called me this afternoon because Willia, who now goes by Will, hammered some jock who called her the “C” word. And I mean hammered. Jocko needed 17 stitches above his right eye. Willia had studied karate since age 9, began lifting weights at 14, and (unknown to me) started injecting steroids at 15. So Mister Stud Muffin didn’t have a chance.
The principal wanted to suspend Willia for two weeks after the fight; I told her to expect a call from my lawyer if she did. Any delinquent who called Willia a “cunt” deserved stitches, and the school was responsible for protecting my daughter from bullying.
The principal backed down but asked, “Have you considered counseling? Willia is boyish…in an unhealthy way. She frightens many of her classmates.”
I explained that I had already been though many discussions with my daughter and told the principal, “Willia has worked with a psychiatrist for six months. The doctor is cautious but said she seems to be a smart, mature, healthy young ‘man’ who might be helped by gender-affirming treatments.” I also remind Madeline Davids that gender identity was a protected status in Rhode Island, so I hoped my attorney wouldn’t also need to investigate civil rights and ADA violations.
“Please be assured, Mrs. Wintersmith,” said Dr. Davids. “Your daughter will receive every legal accommodation.”
It was obvious that the principal did not want a court case (who does?); and after my not-so-subtle threats, I think Willia could have decked half the football team with impunity. However, I do not like aggression and assured the principal that I’d talk with my daughter about avoiding violence. Not always easy for trans-folks.
I am miserable. My 20-year-old daughter just told me that she is a man, period, and plans to take testosterone and have top surgery. I figured it was time to explain Willia’s origins and why she couldn’t do this to me. She took the news pretty well. Threw things all over the house. Cried. Threatened to kill me and then herself. Screamed for an hour about being a freak and how all she ever wanted was to be normal.
I began to cry, too, having inflicted identity hell on another human being. We owned identical genes, but she was not me. She was a man. I, a woman. And now we were both transsexual.
“Don’t worry,” I said, desperate to calm her. “I will make this right. You shall become the man you are. I swear by my love of being a woman.”
“That’s impossible,” he said. “You forced me into a female body. You! My life ended before it began.”
It was months before Will stopped hating me; longer before I stopped hating myself. I figured the prenatal anti-rejection medications, mostly cyclosporine, must have somehow countered the in-utero estrogenic brainwashes. There’s no other reasonable explanation; Willia should have had a feminine identity; yet somehow I had caused what I desperately wanted to avoid for my daughter. Then again, I should have had a masculine identity, so nature can be a crapshoot despite scientific engineering.
When William told me he was a man, I was devastated yet strangely relieved. Devastated because I wanted her to be a perfect princess; relieved because the truth of “self” inevitably emerged. I could no more control my clone’s identity than my own. Sure, I had manipulated the body he’d worn since birth and then induced female adolescent development, but for William this had been dangerously unhealthy.
Now, I resolved to help restructure the shell to fit his identity, offering emotional support and inflicting none of the conform-to-your-box tortures from my generation: family rejection, mental hospitals, and aversion therapy (water boarding would have been more pleasant).
I would assist Will as much as possible. Indeed, I could perform almost every treatment except the top and bottom surgeries. We’d need a qualified M.D. for these procedures.
William increased his testosterone, had a double mastectomy, and transitioned into a visible male. He continued at Harvard University as an undergraduate, majored in biology, lived on campus, and returned to Rhode Island most weekends for free laundry service. By carrying 18 units per semester and taking summer lab classes, Will finished his BS degree in three years and went on to complete a Ph.D. My son never lacked ambition. And because transsexualism didn’t kill him, it seems that Nietzsche was correct. William James Wintersmith is tough.
Will is three inches shorter than I, which should be expected from the supplemental estrogens during puberty. But now, after years of testosterone, aerobics, and weight training, he stands five-three and carries 145 pounds of lean muscle. I said he was smart, so he had no intention of a career in academia. Will works as a pharmaceutical lab director earning twice my professor’s salary. Young whippersnapper.
He dated a few women in college and grad school. But because Will hadn’t had bottom surgery (full phalloplasty minimally requires three complex operations), most women bolted after discovering William was trans.
The bloody fools. Young people never understand the meaning of love, masculinity, or femininity until they’ve been through at least one bad marriage. They pretend romance is a fairytale. And since William didn’t have a penis, women couldn’t accept him as a man. A dropout, drunkard, or junkie might be fine, but not a dickless scientist. One young woman, who genuinely cared for Will, was persuaded by her family that he was unfit.
This sweet girl invited Will and me to dinner to reassure her parents. She assumed that meeting him would open their minds. After 20 minutes of attempted make-nice, the father called my son a freak. I threw my wine glass at his face and lunged across the table with a steak knife. William held me back or I’d probably be in prison right now. Sure, we had both used the word with each other, but that was among family. Despite intelligence and great success in almost every other area of his life, Will suffered intimacy rejection over something that was not his fault. This hurt me almost as much as it hurt him.
He then quit dating altogether, telling me, “The kind of woman I want does not want a transsexual.”
Poor Will remained solemn for several months, focusing mostly on work, reading a lot, and “thinking,” he said—though he didn’t confide much in me. I figured it would take about a year for him to heal and start dating again. You can imagine my shock when, on July 1, William James Wintersmith, my cloned son who still lived at home, asked me to marry him.
I said no! Loudly.
I reminded him of the 27-year age difference; he dismissed it. I suggested our parent-child status prohibited a union; he reminded me that he was a clone, which didn’t qualify as incestuous but might be narcissistic.
He added, “There’s no better match than genetically identical sex-differentiated transsexuals. There could never be another marriage like ours.”
The last statement was true, of course, but that didn’t put my dis-ease to bed.
The proposal lasted two hours. He had counterarguments for all my objections. Finally, both of us exhausted, he looked into my eyes, clasped my hands in his, and said, “You are my mother and sister, father and brother. But for different hormones in our bodies at different times, we are one. We should be married. And someday, we shall clone another child to be carried by a surrogate mother. He can be a genetic male who is not transsexual. Think of the wonder.”
About half a percent of this made weird sense. The rest seemed…pornographic? I ran toward the bathroom to throw up. I didn’t make it in time.
The next morning William went to the lab as usual. I stayed home with a migraine. Fortunately, I didn’t teach on Wednesdays and Fridays. After the headache dissipated, I started with bourbon on the rocks. The next four were neat.
Will and I didn’t talk much the rest of the week. I must have been the most distracted professor on campus, but the following Saturday, we shared a bottle of high-end Cabernet with his favorite homemade pasta dinner. William broached the marriage issue once more.
“I know this has been difficult for you,” he said. “For me, too.”
“I’m better,” I replied softly. “It’s not that I don’t love you, but it’s the wrong kind of love.”
“You think my proposal is illegitimate because you accept the hetero-normative images of your generation.” He reached across the table for my hand and I instinctively recoiled.
“See,” he said. “Would you otherwise pull away? I’m a male version of you. And by most accounts, I’m an attractive, professional man—a great catch. Except that I am FTM….”
“Listen,” I replied, regaining composure. “I want what’s best for you…, to find the right woman, a normal woman. Have kids through artificial insemination and be a real family. Don’t throw that away on an impossible notion.”
“Aren’t you real, Rachel?”
He had started using my first name after he proposed. Before his transition, Willia called me “Mom.” After transition, I became, “Denim”; short for “DNA Mom.” Now, I was “Rachel.”
“Honey,” I replied. “I want you to have the love and intimacy I never did.”
“That’s what I’m offering…. You created me, but I am neither monster nor daughter nor son. I am a future husband and father. Down to the individual cells of our souls, we are the best match for each other—probably the only match.”
Will gulped his glass of wine, pulled out a jeweler’s box, and set it on the table.
“I’ve rented a room at the extended stay motel. Call me when you are able to wear this ring. I love you as I love myself.”
He kissed me on the cheek and left. I haven’t heard from him in three weeks.
I ignored the box for 15 days before looking inside. A two-karat diamond solitaire mounted on yellow gold; damn, it was beautiful. The jeweler had a free-return policy if the girl said no, so I wasn’t worried about cost but rather connotations. I tried to reconsider. William wasn’t my biological son. He was a clone revved up on testosterone, muscle, ambition, masculinity, and libido, which he had been unable to satisfy in playing by the rules.
Why did I react so strongly to his proposal? Was I biased against transsexuals or just against me? What’s wrong with two sex-changed individuals getting together? We looked nothing alike because of hormonal transformations. He was an attractive man. I was a passable woman.
I closed the box without removing the ring, poured a two-finger shot of bourbon, and tried to analyze every agonizing twist of my emotions. Where was a heart attack when you needed one?
When I was 22, I visited a therapist for depression. Upon learning that I was a male-to-female transsexual, she asked, “How many times have you tried to commit suicide?”
A presumptuous question, sure, but I provided a number. When a shrink has trans-counseling experience, she can skip the preliminaries and get straight to business. Now, William’s suggestion made me wonder about adding to my count, but I didn’t want to die. I called him instead and asked if we might dine together.
He came. We talked for six months. He was solicitous, respectful, and kind—a man of substance. Damned if I didn’t fall in love.
We married in Nevada on January 8.
Our union was secret. We each kept our jobs and separate benefits. Most people still thought of Will as my son or daughter (depending on when they’d met him) and assumed that he lived at home to help his mother.
After seven months, my husband and I agreed to clone a child using standard DNA extraction/replacement. This time, however, the child would be carried by a volunteer surrogate mother who had tried but failed through several early-term miscarriages to have a baby. It would be the surrogate’s egg, and she would keep the child. William and I supported this arrangement.
There were no lawyers involved as too many explanations would be required. The surrogate, a single woman, would tell doctors that she miraculously got pregnant the old-fashioned way, without naming the father, and deliver her baby. Will and I would then keep our distance so as not to influence (consciously or unconsciously) the child’s development. There would be no hormone manipulation and no hint of its genetic background. Even the mother did not know exactly how her harvested and implanted egg had been invigorated, and she didn’t care. In a sense, she wasn’t a surrogate at all but simply an expectant mother.
William and I both carried the same “Y” chromosome; thus, the mother was informed that she would have a boy. And though we had been afflicted with gender identity disorder, there was little reason to believe that our clone would be so burdened. Many improbable things in improbable sequence must happen inside the womb to create a psychologically feminized male. This child should have a masculine gender identity.
Everything worked as planned, and there soon existed three genetically identical yet distinctly different human beings. A transwoman, a transman, and a newborn male who would grow up as a boy.
The mother was thrilled when she delivered a seven-pound baby at full term. I had arrived two months premature, and Will was three, so differences were already apparent. William and I would simply allow our descendant to grow into a fertile male who could spread our DNA naturally. We wanted the boy to have every chance for a non-transsexual life.
Predictably, the child would receive the kind of village and family love that is generally unavailable to our kind. And with the deepest and most heartfelt parental concern, based upon two lifetimes of trans-psychosocial experience, William and Rachel Wintersmith prayed their clone would become a man completely ignorant of gender dysphoria. With all possible love and devotion, they prayed their clone would not become them.
Claudine Griggs is the Writing Center Director at Rhode Island College, and her publications include three nonfiction books along with a couple dozen articles on writing, teaching, and other topics. She also writes fiction and science fiction, her first-love genre as a teenager. Griggs earned her BA and MA in English at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
I was in traffic in a shared taxi in Beirut, and the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani was on the radio. I remember where we were (the end of Verdun street), not only because of who was talking or what he was talking about (representations of women in classical Arab poetry, and “of course the Qur’an is poetry”), but also because of the way the driver turned up the volume.
The most essential definition of literary form may be that it is an invitation to pay a particular kind of attention. On the vexed question of whether the Qur’an can be read as poetry, I would side with Nizar, because the desire to respond by paying attention can and maybe should come from the same place, whether what is playing is the Qur’an, or poetry, or a poet talking about the Qur’an as poetry. We want Nizar to be consoled, we want to properly mourn his wife who died on a nearby street. We want to be perfect listeners, to help make things right. In whatever small sense, each according to their ability, we want to start from scratch, to listen by imagining that we have not heard before. We wonder, for a fleeting moment, how shall we live now, and who shall we be, knowing of Nizar’s pain, in which we might have had a part?
If we believe that listening is a responsibility, then there ought to be a way to own that responsibility, to carry it with us and work on it, always. There ought to be a pick, or a fork, with which we always set to work, when work is given to us: and there ought to be a way to understand that the fruit of the work is our very own. But there is a fog over form, and a tendency to treat listening (or reading) as if it were automatic: as if there is no gap between the writer and the reader in which the reader has to ask, who am I being asked to be? And where the power to answer and to be is the reader’s.
In the imaginary space in which we meet Nizar for a hypothetical conversation about the state of the world, we are the random delegate of the world elected for this moment, and our election, even if random, implies a contingent equality with Nizar, and we want to be worthy. We want to be more witty, bohemian, down-to-earth, humane and wise than we actually are. This desire does not quite come before the words, it comes with the words that we hear. We imagine that we have to be a certain quality of person to understand them, and therefore we try to understand them as a certain quality of person would understand them. The poetry gives us the opportunity to produce ourselves, because how witty, bohemian, down-to-earth, humane and wise were we before we heard Nizar? These were not things we were thinking about. We think, therefore we are.
The fog over form may exist, in some part, because we expect first to be, then to think. If you see writing as clear and straightforward, as containing ideas which can be extracted if you read in the correct way, then it is not only that you see no need for form, but you also do not see the fluidity and freedom with which we fashion ourselves as we experience form.
Is the Qur’an poetry? To uphold that it is poetry is not an opinion about the Qur’an, but about us and the ongoing social conversations about the possibility and the particular shape of our reflexive freedom. Again, I agree with Nizar, through thick fog.
Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar, the modernist Turkish writer, saw the cultivation of form among his literary predecessors as a dead end, even as he claimed that it made possible a renaissance for his generation. He sets up a double standard in order to both claim and disown the divan poets as predecessors by claiming that form can be separate from content, for them but not for him. However, maintaining this double standard undermines the very thing that Tanpinar wants to claim for his generation (and not for the previous one): the ability to see the world.
According to Tanpinar, the divan poets do not refer to the real world. They are trapped inside a circle, an airless chamber “too narrow for living things” (kâinatları dardı). When they exert themselves to write poetry, it is only to overcome technical obstacles that they set for themselves and each other as a kind of sport. Speaking of the divan poet Nefi, Tanpinar says that “the only point of his verse is the rhyme”: he sets it up “as a north star in the faint light of which he is forced to walk the tightest of paths.” But there is one good thing about all this empty poetry: even if they were just barking, at least the divan poets pulled hard on the leash of the Turkish language, stretching it for the present generation (the leash metaphor is mine, not Tanpinar’s).
Tanpinar’s dictum that in divan poetry “it is only the way of saying that matters,” (söylenilen şey değil, söyleyiş tarzıdır), with its implication that form can happen in the absence of meaning, is adopted by the contemporary Turkish school curriculum and somewhat amplified by its staccato presentation, as if making the inverse point that real content has no need for form:
Why is divan poetry taught at all, if it is so bad? The lesson, while purporting to be about divan poetry, is at the same time about what divan poetry fails to be. The citing of a specific year, 1860, to mark the end of divan poetry (Were all the divan poets rounded up? Were they hit by a meteor?) helps sharpen the contrast between a pure subjectivity in the past and a pure objectivity in the present. The past is portrayed as not needing or wanting to refer to the world, whereas referring to the world is what most matters now.
This state of affairs may explain why I speak and write only with great difficulty, in any language: my Arabic teachers believed that it didn’t matter what I wrote, only how I wrote it. The Turkish split, amounting to a cultural schizophrenia, manifested itself in Arabic diglossia by casting the standard language as the repository of an eternal and essential national character. The separation of form from content in my education was in effect a gag on what could be said and thought. We didn’t know which topics might match the expressive heights that were expected, so we gratefully accepted whatever topic was provided, and did our best to play the pantomime of expressing wisdom, or wonder, or whatever. In aiming to please our teachers and our elders, we vacillated between guessing what they thought we should be, and what they thought the world should be. The latter we had to work hard at guessing: when we did talk about the world, it was the normal world, somewhere else that was not at war, or our own beautiful past: meanwhile, a civil war raged outside over the right to describe the present.
It may be as necessary to look at “the creature” as Tanpinar would have put it, or at “the thing” as an Anglo modernist poet might put it, as it is in divan poetry or in the Qur’an itself. It could be said, for all them, that the ability to respond truthfully is best tested with the smallest of things, and that the response to the small is a test, or even a condition, for the quality of response to bigger things. It could be said also, in the same vein, that response to the thing can be seen as, instead of a test, a reprieve, a saving device. A fresh response can contain a kernel of truth which, bypassing tired or oppressive ways of viewing the world, can bring a new world into view, a new world in which to be a person and therefore the possibility of a new person. In George Oppen’s poem “Psalm,” the deer possesses a kind of saving beauty by being alien to us, and at the same time so naturally a part of its own world, so undeniably “there,” as if surrounded by a deer universe that envelopes it and which invites us to be sucked into it, to be there as the deer is there:
In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down—
That they are there!
Effortless, the soft lips
Nuzzle and the alien small teeth
Tear at the grass
The roots of it
Dangle from their mouths
Scattering earth in the strange woods.
They who are there.
Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them
Hang in the distances
The small nouns
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.
The analogy with Muslim culture does not fail yet: it is still possible to say that the clearing motion that is needed to replace faith in something else with “faith in this in which the wild deer startle, and stare out,” is intelligible in terms of tanzīh (The Islamic analogue to negative theology: we cannot claim to know for sure what God is and therefore anything we imagine about him may in fact be wrong), as well as, more basically, in terms of jamāl, immanence.
If the analogy fails, it is for the same reasons: the device of the saving deer is so well understood, as not to be alien at all. It is very naturally “there” and “here” without being alien, even if the wonder of its rediscovery can make it seem alien, in which case it appears alien because it suddenly takes on an abundance of meaning: there is no desire to escape all previous meaning. The Muslim deer is still very much a cultural one, and there is no desire for a natural state outside culture: no perfect, primordial harmony with the world, except through patient cultural and spiritual strife. One has to literally “culture” oneself, and the return from any fallen or jaded state (here religion can meet again with art) is a well-travelled kind of path.
An iconic example of this would be the portrait of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Second smelling a rose (15th C), where the rose is understood to save him, and the realm. The incident between the miniaturist and the Ottoman vizier in “Waiting for Heaven” (Cenneti Beklerken, Derviş Zaim, 2006) is a dramatization of this understanding. The miniaturist is brought before the unsmiling vizier, the executioner standing by with his sword. After a moment’s thought, the vizier takes an apple to his nose and deliberately smells it, then takes a bite from it: in this way he signals to the miniaturist that he has been reprieved. The vizier knows that he cannot depend on a deer to be walking by at that moment: that is why he keeps an apple handy. We collect those things that save us.
In “Embrace of the Serpent” (El Abrazo de la Serpiente, Ciro Guerra, 2015), when a botanist who has ventured into the Amazon in search of a plant asks a shaman to help him find it, and the shaman can’t remember, the shaman breaks into tears, asking himself, how could I have let this happen to me?
At what point has the taxonomy, the mnemonic that allows the shaman to remember thousands of plants, failed when it fails to turn up one plant? Was it just lack of use, because those that the shaman might have ministered to have died or fled? The shaman’s crying, and the years that it takes him to recover, suggests that the problem, at least as the shaman sees it, is with the shaman himself. The task of memory, of collecting things into categories, may be a logical one; it needs to be consistent, and it needs to refer to real plants, and to as many plants as possible.
Nevertheless, logic alone does not explain why the shaman spends time on the forest floor or in the canopy. The shaman needs to survive, but while he survives, what is his life like? What makes him happy? The use of any plant, no matter its medicinal value, is inseparable from this: because why live at all, why try to get better when you are sick, if you do not love the forest?
To recover the one plant, the shaman needs to recover as a person, and for that he has to turn structure on its head. He has to trace a way from the whole world, back to the plant, in a kind of reverse colonization: from a taxonomy without a plant, to a plant without a taxonomy. If he is to see the plant with any sharpness, it is a sharpness already granted by the world to which he seeks to belong: a sharpness that seems gifted, because one’s good relation to the world seems to just happen. That gifted happening, however, is also a taxonomy, an epistemology: not just a way of learning, but a reason to learn.
Form makes it possible to start again from a broken world. With a taxonomy in hand, one proceeds as if with a blueprint. But a new taxonomy proves nothing: the burden of proof is always in the future, in the patient encounter with every plant, and in the cultivation of wonder, which is the paradoxical ability of the taxonomy to simultaneously fail and succeed. Because once the plant is accounted for under any taxonomy, once it is believed, it gains the confidence to tell us of yet other plants, other than the ones that had told us of it.
Wonder may be the fear of leaving out a plant: it is to doubt the taxonomy, the doubt pushing the taxonomy wider. The taxonomy balloons, it becomes a nebula, its precise shape is lost track of. It overlaps with other taxonomies: a plant becomes two plants at once.
The interchange between taxonomies brings us into view. We are the expanders of them, and the blenders. This ability, and this confidence, gives substance to our existence. But we would never engage in this shamanistic work, of elevating plants into tribes, and tribes into kingdoms, were it not for a taxonomy of repentance that constantly reminds us of our insignificance: the nebula only looks wonderful in absolute darkness. I think of the double meaning of the first verse of chapter 76 of the Qur’an, “The Human” (al-Insān): “Has there ever been a time when the human was not something of significance?” The answer flips between yes and no: yes if you think of how the individual human is born, which is what the next verse describes (“We created them out of a bit of mixed fluid, making them able to hear and to see”). The answer is also no, if you think of humans in the plural: memory does not find such a time. It is this unavoidably remembered nobility that impels to repentance: without it there is less meaning to falling short.
When I claim that the Qur’an can be read as literature, I do not mean it as an antidote to ignorance, where ignorance is defined as a disinterest in progress, as fatalism and laziness. I do not mean it as Matthew Arnold meant it, or as those in the Arab world whose work derived from his meant it, who when they advocated for a literary Qur’an meant that it could thus be made to conform to science, and that its morality could be saved with a sieve to sustain the modernizing nation, milk and sugar to its coffee of fact.
I don’t care so much for coffee. Myself, I am a tea drinker.
Mazen Makkouk recently finished a dissertation on the Qur’an and Literature. He is interested in the way religious and literary texts “reveal” knowledge, and is now reading the Turkish divan poets and the Greek writer Alexandros Papadiamantis.
“Where are the children.”
“Grown. Or dead.”
Shannon and Lenore stand in the neighborhood of his repeated dreams: the same solemn, darkest blue of an early late night sky, same corner house sunken low like a slab of clay, same streetlamp throwing its summery light on the intersection where is no lobbed football, no exhilarated children, no car in the driveway hiding mischievous men. She takes his hand. They walk up the inclining street, blending in with baths of pavement greys under alternating streetlights.
“I thought you had to stay in my place,” he murmurs.
“Open your eyes.” She sits before him on the wooden floor of his apartment—butcher block table behind, piano to the left, littlest body outline beneath. She opens her own eyes to greet his.
Eyes close; back on the street she turns to him, releasing his hand. “The times you chased me, in this world, what did you want.”
He blinks. “I don’t know.”
“To catch me?”
“I don’t know.”
“To capture me.”
“To fool me.”
“To feed me.”
“To, say it.”
“To what me.”
“To what me.”
“Me, to what me.”
“TO BE YOU.”
She relaxes, faces up the street again, taking his hand, they walk on.
Murmuring more, “So I have heard you laugh before. Before the house. What’s in the house.”
“The swamping room.”
Night holding them close together is easing its tension into dawn, into daylight, showing the neighborhood faintly fluxing in shape, settling in as another part of town, a wealthy road of brownstones. She stops before a banistered firebrick staircase. In the window is a face that is suppose to know him.
He stares unblinking. “I don’t want to know the story anymore.”
She stares unblinking. “That doesn’t matter. It knows you. It knows where you are and has found you there.” Releasing his hand once more, “It’s time to gather.”
He opens his eyes to meet hers before him on the wooden floor of his apartment—butcher block table behind, piano to the left, littlest body outline beneath. She opens her own eyes to greet his.
“The traces, threads pulling on you, through you. These are many, many.”
“Reaching what, to where.”
“And absence. Sometimes ringing with words.”
“What do you want to know.”
“There were…” His face drops, wincing, as if holding back a sneeze. Holding, holding it. “But I’ve forgotten now.” Eyes open on the street.
In the window is a face that’s supposed to know him.
A man opens, boyish, not quite middle-aged, not by far. What a many cornered face. The man wears a white linen tunic fragrant with cedar and sandalwood cologne. His lumber-stacked straight frame looks like a tree draped in fresh laundry.
“You’ve been standing in the street for nearly ten minutes. Ring the bell already before a car hits you.”
Shannon ascends the stairs attentively, reaching Roger, and pushes a white button-sized dome beside the door frame. A courteous, toneless pattern of notes sag in the air.
Inside the apartment is immaculate with ivory hues—carpeting, walls, upholstery; furniture pieces made wholly of or lined with cherry wood. Or maybe walnut, or maple, or oak; he wonders if he’s trying to name the wood or describe the man.
Leading Shannon in, Roger stops at the bay window beside head-sized slates of gilded glass, flashing light. Two people together like this might sit on the leather Chesterwood sofa, at the window ledge, even lean against the wall. These thoughts occur to them but not the impulse. As if in a congregation, a circle, a crowd dictating their bearings; they stand across from each other at a distance.
“I had to contact a few people to find out if you’d be at the brunch. I guess that means I crashed it.” Almost smiling, “But you crushed it.”
“Roger. What is the swamping room.”
Roger’s eyes grow to flying-saucer-round. “Is this a trick question.”
Shannon blinks. “No.”
Roger’s eyes flutter about the room like a disoriented bird seeking an open window; it lands on the lowest bookshelf neatly stuffed with notebooks shedding their spines. He crouches to withdraw one and then another and then another, then stands flipping pages back and forth. “I transcribed all the sermons you gave in your office. Or anytime you opened your mouth.”
“I was a man of faith,” Shannon, surprised.
“Hardly,” eyes rolling, then brightening, folding down a page. “You were proliferating with us interns. I had turned on my voice recorder hidden in my sleeve—you disliked when I brought it out in casual conversation.” He sits on the coiled back of a chaise lounge chair. “But somehow it was never casual with you, even when it was.” Closing the notebook on his finger, “As if fate were always in the balance; in our pauses and our looks, the very words chosen; about the world, the weather, the goddamn sun.”
Shannon waits, unperplexed.
Opening his notes, Roger inhales. “‘Every mind has an underworld into which no daylight can shine. Where artifacts are collected.’”
“‘Echo chambers. For our ecstasies and longing, our pain and horror, for almost-truths, even the true.’”
“And what is the true.”
“‘Moments when the mind stops, when it gallops; when it flips over and falls out and has to watch itself gasping on the pavement.’”
“‘The daylight-mind arranges these artifacts into a narrative it can live with. And what it can’t live with is condemned to the swamping room.’”
He swallows. “And what happens there.”
“‘What cannot happen.’”
“‘It’s where what cannot be draws breath. Where what cannot have been endures. Where what cannot be seen glistens. Where the unbelievable has physical existence. Where the impossible is impossible still. Where all the elephants lie down.’ ” Roger’s mouth winks a quick sneer, “ ‘Sometimes we’d like to smuggle in a baseball bat.’”
Roger smirks in recollection. “Your responses now, word for word, have been the same ones we had back then.” He reads on.
“‘But you can’t access it alone, the swamping room. It takes another witness.’”
“It takes them.”
“Yes. ‘Expressing itself in them, to live on.’”
“Like a malady.”
“‘Like a melody.’”
“You tolerated all that babble.”
“And you cared for it.”
Stepping forward, “What was it like to work for me.”
Stepping back, “Inspirational.”
“And to know me personally.”
Roger’s lips loosens and eyes dilate, “You were often rushed, greedy, but tender in the afterglow,” and shudders with abrupt scorn, nostrils flaring, “But you’re a shell of that man now—the walking undead of your former self.” His voice is muffled in the activity of his twitching chin and twisting mouth, “I thought I could tell you, tell you all of it. The whole terrifying tale I’ve painfully pieced together. But it can’t be me. I’m sorry.”
Shannon’s face is opening, Roger’s tightening, “The cowards will say ‘Shannon Wolf has no witness.’ But it’s worse than that.” A watery light skids down his cheek, “You have a witness. And you’ll never find her.”
Seconds pass, perhaps minutes, most likely—
“SAY SOMETHING!” Roger bellows.
“You’ve been brave tonight,” reaching to touch his shoulder.
Cuffing it away, “You nauseate me!”
Roger grabs Shannon’s shirt color with both fists, punching his eyes into Shannon’s—into one eye, then the other, and Shannon takes it, and takes it. Overcome, he slumps into Shannon, grieving aloud in gulps and apologies. Shannon anchors him until both men stop bending, holds him close, though he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want disaster; he wears no tie; Roger’s face is the tie. He strokes his head, and knows he will never see this man again.
There are trees a grown man can climb when there is no face near enough nor strong enough to bear his blinding urgency; boughs that can carry his heavy rest without groan. Several limbs up, Shannon crouches barefoot like a gorilla expecting an incident, a coincidence, a danger. Perhaps a herd of elephants. Rising smoke from his cigarette pillows under the large up-turned hand of a leaf, cloaking it, moving on like water.
All the language of the afternoon, the nonsense, compelling him, convicting him, makes him aware he hasn’t any teeth—the kind needed to latch on and agitate the account; organize what’s shaken out into a memory that is more than the event of having heard it spoken. It is only noise now; the landfill he walked past days ago—the crowding-in sound of unbendable material, screeching into a solid cube of surplus.
It wouldn’t help to scream, himself. That would be redundant, not precise enough. His legs prickle him back to the tree; he stretches them out, throwing balance, and smacks his head on a bulging bough. The screeching landfill noises in his head pop and skip like a record; a moment of order. So he faces the tree in agreement and beats his forehead against it over and over, the order simplifying, simplifying. Until the blood brims his eyebrows, until the noises are dumb and listening, until the pain is in the chord of A flat major.
Jim lifts his mother from the piano bench, Lenore remaining on the other side. A younger man cheerfully enters the apartment with a buoyancy that burdens everyone with embarrassment. He’s in gym attire and gym physique with no radiance of labor, no trails of sweat.
“Can I help you, Jim!” out of breath with enthusiasm. He takes one side of the buckling woman, gripping her sharp-edged elbows and rounded shoulders.
“Shannon, this is Dale.”
Dale grins big.
Shannon stares. “Do I know Dale.”
Jim hesitates, looks away, “Dale is new.”
Shannon nods, “Hello, Dale.”
The procession continues its short walk to the door.
“Jim, do you remember Roger Pearce.”
Everything but his mouth smiling, “You can leave now, Dale,” Shannon says.
Jim gestures, Dale walks his mother out the door.
Now alone, “Yes, I remember Roger Pearce,” Jim mumbles, hands in pockets, gaze on floor.
“He was at your brunch soiree.”
“So he was.”
“He and I had a chat today.”
Jim stares stupid.
“He said I’m the walking undead of my former self. That’s a term I haven’t heard yet, ‘former self.’ What does he mean, Jim.”
“Better ask him.”
“He wept in my arms.”
“There’s your answer.”
“That isn’t an answer, it’s a burial.”
“WELL LOOK AROUND!” Jim, sweeping his arm across the field of body outlines.
“Not good enough.”
“We aren’t doing this now,” heading to the open door.
“YES, WE ARE,” slamming it.
Jim’s face drops, wincing, as if holding back a sneeze. Holding, holding it. “Sit down, Shannon.”
At the table, with hands on his knees, Jim looks paralyzed, as if he has lost all memory and motor skills, all ability to speak or comprehend language. He’s silent for so long Shannon wonders if he’s lost time again and Jim has already spoken.
“Four years ago you were found beaten unconscious in your neighbor’s bathroom beside his dead body and his dying child’s. Both were naked. You, in a three piece suit. Everyone’s blood was on everybody.
“You were a trial lawyer building a legacy—your sparkling charism and poetic rhetoric made even admirable men want to live their lives over. We were partners in a firm, Schäfer and Wolf. An athlete and accomplished musician, you threw dinner parties that carried on into scandalous hours. A constant gardener, writing a book “Go to Hell: Nine Vegan Recipes Inspired By Dante’s Inferno”; a renaissance man, you were unstoppable.
“Our firm took your case, risking professional ruin. We argued the degree of your injuries rendered you incompetent to stand trial, for indeed, when you had awoken from your coma you had lost almost everything—your memory and motor skills, your ability to speak or comprehend language. We tried pleading involuntary manslaughter but your journals, plotting the event, were read as having intent with malice. And you, now incompetent, who could show no remorse, were sentenced: voluntary manslaughter, ten years in prison.
“We made a plea agreement to six years in a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane where you received state of the art recovery care. During your stay, leadership changed hands, methods modified, and the institute collapsed under lawsuits due to unorthodox practices that got tragically out of control. You had served three years, then transferred to low-security rehabilitation, then released on parole to a halfway house with outpatient care. The last three months you’ve been allowed to live here, alone. But society has rules for you joining it again. And you’ve been breaking them.”
Seconds pass, perhaps minutes, most likely seconds.
Smacking the table for attention, “SHANNON.” Then strikes him, “SHANNON, COME BACK.”
Shannon faces him, “You have dreaded this night for years, haven’t you, Jim.”
Jim stares back, eyes pooling with watery light.
If Shannon is both the light’s reflection and the depth it doesn’t reach, he should not move to touch Jim who would recoil.
“Jim, what happened. In that house.”
“Nobody knows. Not forensics, not judge and jury, not even you.”
“Why was I there.”
“It was a rescue mission. You were there to save the child.”
Jim stares, “It was I who found you.”
“My own rescue mission: I was there to save you.” His lower lip tremors. He swallows, “What can be known is in the police report and court transcripts.”
“Can I read them.”
“I can arrange it. But Shannon,” gently, “there will be photographs…”
Seconds pass, perhaps minutes, most likely—
“SHANNON” Jim snaps his fingers. Shannon blinks.
“I suggest you go at this backwards. Find a patient with whom you served time at the asylum. I can locate one, have you talk.”
“Next week you meet again with your parole officer. I’ll take you.”
Dropping to a whisper, “Shannon.”
He looks up.
“You shouldn’t be alone tonight.”
He holds his gaze; he won’t look at the chalk outlines.
“I’ll be alright. I have to be.”
“Can we meet tomorrow?”
Jim stands—he won’t look at the chalk outlines, he won’t. Hand on the doorknob, head bowed,
“I wish I could say the worst suffering is over.” He won’t look at the chalk outlines, he won’t.
“But I don’t think so.” Steps out the door.
The start of Jim’s engine, though quiet, is a blast like a shotgun, exploding Shannon’s chest propeller into lung dust. He should be collapsing from the explosion but his forearms are on the table, palms down, his posture paralyzed into a forklift, brain idling in blackout. Minutes pass, perhaps hours, most likely—COME BACK commands the one emergency fuse still burning in the back of his power outage. There is always one last fuse, thinks another. Unless there isn’t, thinks a third. And one by one they relight, the ones that can. Until he is aware of the child breathing on the piano bench. Breathing. Breathing. Whom he cannot look at; who cannot look elsewhere but at him. Her face serene… without malice, without remorse.
Kat Mandeville graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, is finishing her PhD in Philosophy & Critical Thought at the European Graduate School. She’s published two books of poetry, with various poems published in various journals. She lives in New York City.
Sunday 3rd of July (Giant Phallus Hauling Day)
Dear Mighty Jellybean,
How’s it going? I guess you leave Izmir sometime soon? It looks like I’ll be back at Rasay the coming semester, it’s fucking hot here and it feels like the entire city is bathing in a dirty oily sweat filled pothole, not quite as hot as Izmir though, where the sun shines through you so Izmirites can check for whether you’re circumcised or not. You’ll be happy to learn that I’m eating a hotdog right now, pork of course, quite good, I love eating hotdogs while writing emails, the two go together like Turks and mayonnaise, still it’s nice to be back home, in a country where you can’t predict, in advance, what your excrement will look like before consuming the dish.
When the first crusaders encountered the first community of Turks, the Seljuks, they found them ‘gabbling away like demons.’ Sorry I haven’t written sooner but had a lot on the metal plate in my head. Since I’ve been here there have been 9 bombings or 2 suicide attacks, and a minor earthquake that toppled a few bookshelves. Not doing anything super productive in the practical sense, just milking the black storm clouds, lurking behind rubbery shrubbery, and being the liveried butler serving bad decisions faithfully. And this morning, along with 12 of my brethren, am hauling a 13 meter stoned phallus through the streets of Beirut.
The traffic cop fired up his big white police bike, wailed, and blew a kiss to the gridlocked traffic, before speeding off leaving a skid mark where his heart used to be. Everybody here is waiting for the bomb(s).
With much hotdogs, The Imperial Turkey
Sunday 11th of July 2016 (Holy Mushroom Day)
Dear Mighty Jellybean,
May I wish you a blessed Mushroom Day. Those suicide attacks I was telling you about. It was wrong of me to think that extremists have no sense of humor! They attack this border town in the morning, kill 9 presumably innocent people, on the evening of that day there was a service for the victims, and the terrorists attacked that gathering at the church. I’m chasing every line on the rainbow and the constant fireworks make it seem more like a warzone. In Izmir I’d probably be on the subway, crushed by a mass of Turks over-perfumed with BO, waiting for a big ass-shaped asteroid to destroy the world. Do you think I’d make a good televangelist? I’m actually planning a pre-emptive visit to Izmir sometime in August to look for an apartment, God it’ll be hot, remember that time in the café by the highway when your eyes were running down your face like soft boiled eggs? There might be a major military engagement here, I hope it won’t be accompanied by a shortage of hotdogs.
With too much mayo, The Imperial Turkey
Monday July 18th 2016 (Lonesome Mariner Day)
Dear mighty Jellybean,
I woke up this morning at half past noon, was still groggy and checked the news while smoking my first cigarette, it said: Nice Terrorist attack kills 88. Too bad, nice town Nice, in France. Thank god the power is back on, like the messiah back from a vacation. His big bulging eyes echo, and cries tears of blood as big as tomatoes. I tend to think ‘life is beautiful’ a lot more here, beggars approach the car windows and plaster themselves on it selling high quality merchandise, as opposed to a manic depressive subway train that smells of the living dead. Izmiry society is a clammy society, Beiruty society is not a society. I guess by now you’ve heard of the Coocoo coup, it looked like the big roaring gut between your ears. I know you agree with my edited feelings, I can picture you nodding at 4/4 time, a great and precise nodder, and endowed with a perfect bob too. The crop of the cream has nothing to spill its seeds onto.
With relish, The Imperial Turkey.
Wednesday 20th of July 2016 (The Holy Day of Shedding Crocodile Tears)
Dear Mighty Jellybean,
It’s so hot you can barbeque a hotdog on your head, I’m leading the life of a tarantula hiding in bunches of bananas, a very stagnant life with larvae of anxiety already hatching, and washing my dirty laundry in the river Styx. Sorry I’m writing this on my phone from a café, but after exhausting the supply of books I got recently, no choice is left but to reread the ones I still have from the past, I hate that. So I went out, saw my friend the Middleman, who drove his crumpled car into town. There was so much gobbling on the news, it seems the Turkey has flown the coop, is now hypnotizing headless chickens, and charging backwards relentlessly like a mongoloid Genghis Khan. Nothing like new worries to take the place of your old ones.
Edible dachshund uber alles! The Imperial Turkey
Wednesday 3rd of August 2016 (Toe Counting Day)
Dear Mighty Jellybean,
Remember that one time in The Owl Café, when you took off your glasses, rubbed your eyes, and they inflated and popped out of your skull and floated around like zeppelins ready to burst? I’m sitting on a stool threatening to ream me, watching my pack of cigarettes sucking up the sweat of my shimmering margarita. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to sit on a barrel of a tank when it fires, but unfortunately now is a time to spray spermicide on one’s dreams. This is when the prophylactics come off. I’m sure you understand, you’re intelligent, you probably have a couple of small brains in your nutsack as well as Spinoza living in his cave, in your left nostril. I’ve always wanted to be a ruthless dictator with a choir of yes men, fake rubber vomit skin, and pictures of me plastered everywhere like a badly painted greenish smear of excrement. And if you don’t like it I might as well be Rasputin, Putin, or raspberry jam. A loose cannon that hit the bull’s eye, blind and singing in braille, a vampire bat plastered on my upper lip and champion of hypocrisy. It’s going to take a Saturday to break this spell.
Please pass the mustard gas, The Imperial Turkey
Sunday September 7th (Day of Getting Anxious About Everything)
Dear Mighty Jellybean,
I can’t write poetry,
I’m a 200 pound Turkey.
Keep a big
bulging eye out
for the fluffiness
that will consume us all,
watch the olive grove,
where butterflies and gay bees congregate
but Turkeys do not.
Fair punishment I suppose
for all those chickens we choked,
going down the ladder till finally,
we become some kind of unidentifiable cheese.
Oh, Almighty Eternal EgGod,
pour your innards onto me,
scramble me with your soul!
In a wintery dream,
smoke a cigarette that might not last an eternity,
and sleep the sleep of the torpedoes.
Yours falsely, The Imperial Turkey.
Monday September 28th (The Day of Atonement for Binges)
Dear Mighty Jellybean,
I was just sent this form we have to fill out for Rasay University, just thought about how the email system is flawed, how anal the Turk who is a jerk can get, and it’s compulsory, so just though I’d send it in case you didn’t get it. Personally my onion is burnt, I can’t stand surveys and the beginning of an academic year, as well as Izmir. Silly but sincere, we chastise our pain instead of displaying it in zoos, and we are now parasites in paradise greedily eating up all the hotdogs that belong in Turkish mouths. It is unnatural for human beings to act in accordance with nature, to be human is to deviate from nature.
Questionnaire for International student in Turkey Republic:
What do you like more hogs, logs, dogs, or frogs? Please place in order of preference.
Have you ever looked an owl in eyes? Please give shortened answer.
Are you a follower of the false Imperial Turkey? Please give shortened answer.
Were you ever the prototype for a blow up doll? If you are, please try not to blow up Turkey Citizens.
Have you ever gobbler like a Turkey, wild or neutralized? Answer yesno
What color are the polka dots on your soul? Answer yesno
Have you ever grown a moustache? And if not, Why not? Please answer with moustache.
Have you ever licked the hairs surrounding an asshole into a fine silken thread? Please answer with asshole. If you don’t have one, Turkey Republic will happily provide asshole for duration of stay in Turkey.
Do you have spasms relieved by strokes? Please answer short or it won’t go in our nervous system.
Do you remember you childhood?
Who is favorite vulture?
Is this your 666 time trip in Turkey?
Please enter you’re parrot serial number:
Who do the Turkish emigration and Turkish ministry of education think they are? I am the Imperial Turkey, and no Turkey can out-Turkey me.
The Imperial Turkey.
Thursday September 31st (The Day of Counting Blessings that Never Happened)
Dear Mighty Jellybean,
It’s too bad you cannot return to Turkey, I guess I’m here on my own now. Every day that passes without you is like a fat turkey, being rounded up by the gestapo, blindfolded, and then shot point blank. The blind groping the blind, like bats they grope the insides of their moist dark caves, tomorrow I will be hung upside down by the neck, until I’m dead. Lobsters can never conceal their delight at anything, the world has never really been as uncrustaceanlike as now. I’m afraid it’s a full moon tonight, it, the moon, also seems happy as it, the moon, always does, making fun of those it’s driving nuts, including the lobsters. The Wild Turkey with fat zeros to the left and right of it that gobbles in the wild, and in captivity, is more of a menace to polite society than a frog singing under the aforementioned full moon tonight. Cradle your imaginary red lobster, and hold it close until it suffocates, so that it can whisper to you that appearances may be misleading. It was a clear winter night, and it still is, stained by a drop of scum damp for all eternity, we don’t forgive but grow senile. A wound like a bright light seen from the outside through thick red curtains, the future is being written in invisible ink, as pretty as a picture that still needs to be colored in.
With extra tomato ketchup, The Imperial Turkey.
Saturday October 27st (The Day of Contemplating Nothingness)
Dear Mighty Jellybean,
Riding the subway on this toady today, I noticed a radical change. The handle bars are now copper or a coppery color and a cheap looking wooden veneer on the ceiling of the compartments was installed, but it still smells pretty much the same. I suddenly got the urge to start gobbling like a Turkey, I started gobbling like a Turkey, the Turks weren’t pleased, the Turks don’t know what a Turkey is. But it’s not exactly like there are no hotdogs in Turkey. A hotdog in Turkish is sosis, they also have sosis which is sausage. They do not have pork, but like the rest of the hotdog world, they have a strip of intestines encapsulating a world of discarded meat, and, under normal circumstances, is made up of body parts such as eyes, assholes, lungs, and such that are considered inedible if not ground up first. Over a pair of soulful drinks I wondered, if I could only use one word to describe an asshole, what would it be? Mine would have to be infinity. Not the fair white dove of peace pigeonholed in a specific category, the knives in its back its sole company, nevertheless, I never really did like the way it bobbed its head though. Well I guess the longer you live the more you understand Bob Dylan, the shops in a last desperate attempt were open this Sunday evening, willing to sell absolutely anything for a glimmer of hope, especially if it’s their country, but only to a fellow countryman. Or to a scope of ever widening principled hypocrisy, and still the Turks come in one size fits all.
On behalf of an ungrateful nation, The Imperial Turkey.
Sunday November 1st (The Day of No Deodorant)
Dear Mighty Jellybean,
Why was the Turkey arrested by the authorities after the death of the great leader? They suspected fowl play. In a seventh heaven, over and above god, I failed on one of my papers, I was also told I need to work on my punk, punk, punk, punk, punk, punctuation? I guess it takes a period of horror and anxiety to rediscover life. I never did discover that girl’s name, the one our British-accented Maltese teacher called ‘Mermidal.’ I saw it on the attendance sheet, but still not sure how to pronounce it, I guess halfway between mermaid and marmalade. Eclipsing a wallet stiff with cash, her ass was my shepherd, hollow is thy name in the emptiness of my head. As discreet as a moose banging a brick wall, I followed, to where the newspaper was bleeding into the gutter. It was an eye bulging event, attended by laughing lobsters, realizing fully that the gift you just got was another entity’s way of imposing its taste on you. This extinguished turkey, this requiem of a protagonist, is a firm believer in death after death.
In frantic semantics, The Imperial Turkey.
Pinchas Montes di Oka is an exile living in exile, far from his primordial urges. He has been known to practice vampirism and can never get a decent night’s sleep. He has traveled far and wide looking for an elusive fluffiness that always seems to escape him. Amongst his writings are a series of plagues, the self-help book “How the Lobster Can Guide Us to Ripe Fruit,” and several volumes of poetry that reflect on their own reflection.
An Absence of Incarnadine
The earliest hours are the slowest hours
with an absence of incarnadine.
The memory of day
is a saffron stain.
A woman sweats,
in bra and panties
alone on a worn grey corduroy couch
listening to the sleep of her children.
to their expectant faces
she professes love.
Never does my mind
consider the disappearance of earth—
my thoughts go even further than that
a grisaille balance of stars
the high pitch of emptiness
and the decaying swingset in my backyard;
warped, brittle wood
and tattered canvas.
A calm has descended upon
and the departure of small mammals
for more secluded silences—
the faintest trace of your instep
makes the world more
than a sequence of disconnected flickers
running in the direction
Richard King Perkins II is a state-sponsored advocate for residents in long-term care facilities. He lives in Crystal Lake, IL, USA, with his wife, Vickie, and daughter, Sage. He is a three-time Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Best of the Web nominee whose work has appeared in more than a thousand publications.